By Chris Moore
RATING: 2 / 5 stars
Although Wilco has since gained more critical acclaim, let us not forget that Son Volt was, at least initially, the more successful of the post-Uncle Tupelo groups. When I fell hard for Wilco a year and a half ago, I went hungrily about, devouring any relevant music I could find: Jeff Tweedy’s solo work, Golden Smog, the Minus Five, Wilco demos, and back to the source of it all, Uncle Tupelo. I had an interest in Trace, but I never could find it in physical form on the shelves anywhere.
It took a devoted member of the Jay Farrar message board community to come across my Deep Racks Report on Wilco’s A.M. (1995) and point out my not-so-subtle dismissal of Son Volt for me to realize I had better get serious and find this album.
A year and several spins of their mediocre 2009 record American Central Dust later, I finally stumbled across their debut release in downtown New Haven, CT.
It’s a striking record, a heartfelt, gritty grind through eleven serious songs, Farrar’s characteristic vocal chords creaking at every turn. The first word that comes to mind is authenticity. I can see more clearly than ever that Farrar certainly brought that component to Tupelo. Still, I could have guessed that from A.M.; I love its lyrical bluntness and boneheaded beauty, but Tweedy seemed to be simply passing through town on the way to more experimental music.
Certainly, Uncle Tupelo pioneered the alternative country genre, Tweedy’s interests clearly moving progressively farther to the alternative and, as Trace confirms, Farrar’s predilections being for more pure country – often distortion-soaked, but country all the same.
At best, Trace is a collection of compelling words and instrumentation that gel around what has become a distinctive Son Volt sound. Still, with the exception of “Drown,” I can’t shake the impression that listening to a Son Volt song is like examining a heartbeat: within the first several seconds, you can predict exactly what is to come for the duration.
“Windfall” is a fairly straightforward number, the harmonies and acoustic work kicking off the album on a calm but serious note. It was most certainly unintentional, but I find the reference here to AM radio representing a “truer sound” quite interesting, considering the title of Wilco’s debut release six months earlier.
The band takes it up a notch on “Live Free,” introducing electric guitar to the mix. Even here, though, there is nothing groundbreaking. It is catchy, to be sure, and there is some strumming that verges on being a riff.
Track three retracts that aforementioned notch, but “Tear Stained Eye” is perhaps the most beautiful song on the album.
“Route” has more raw energy than anything that came before, and the band begins to show a bit of disregard for note-for-note perfection — a welcome change. Still, there is nothing outstanding about “Route” when taken out of context.
If depression is your game, then “Ten Second News” is your song. As much as I want to skip it, I do acknowledge that, the reference to cancer notwithstanding, it sounds like it could have come directly out of a traditional ballad written who knows how long ago in the who knows where.
Then comes the flagship of this album. “Drown” has everything that a great rock song should: raw energy, a catchy riff, cool electric soloing, great vocals with hints of harmonies in all the right places. If there were more songs like this, Trace would have received an altogether different rating from me.
Even after multiple listens, the songs on the remainder of the album begin to blend together for me. “Loose String” and “Too Early” aren’t bad songs… They’re just not memorable ones. “Out of the Picture” and “Catching On” have more substance to them, but I can’t avoid noticing the echoes of A.M. in them. (Why reviewers extolled Trace‘s virtues while so blatantly disregarding the merits of Wilco’s debut, I may never understand.)
Son Volt could not have chosen a more poignant number than their cover of Ron Woods’ “Mystifies Me,” and their version verges on the quintessential.
All in all, I don’t dislike Trace, but I am nonplussed by the attention it has received. At best, it is a middle of the road release with a handful of fantastic songs. At worst, it is yet another reason Wilco fans have to be excited about the Uncle Tupelo split.